Stuart Peterfreund, Turning Points in Natural Theology from Bacon to Darwin: The Way of the Argument from Design

Stuart Peterfreund, Turning Points in Natural Theology from Bacon to Darwin: The Way of the Argument from Design (New York: Palgrave Macmillan 2012). 212 pp. £58 Hb, EPUB, PDF. ISBN 978-0-230-10884-4.

Since the publication of Gillian Beer’s Darwin’s Plots in 1983, Darwin and evolution have remained essential topics around which the preoccupations and methodologies of literature and science studies have developed in Britain.  Yet, this continued centrality of Darwin to our discipline, especially when focused on the nineteenth century, heightens the risk of historiographical distortion - of looking at the history of literature and science through Darwin-tinted glasses.  Thus if we want an accurate picture of nineteenth-century culture and if we as students of literature and science want an accurate vision of Darwin-our-lodestar, then it behoves us to study other ways of thinking which were alternative to Darwin’s, even if they supported, opposed, complicated, enabled, or ignored it.

Stuart Peterfreund’s Turning Points in Natural Theology from Bacon to Darwin corrects such Darwin-centrism by offering a historical survey of natural theology, the major precedent and alternative to Darwin’s thoughts on origins.  Although published as part of Palgrave Macmillan’s Nineteenth-Century Major Lives and Letters series, the books begins with the emergence of natural theology as a ‘metascientific discursive practice’ (vii) with Francis Bacon.  On a textual tour of the greats of British science, Peterfreund writes chapters on Bacon, Boyle, and Newton, then takes a side trip through Paley, before venturing to the scientific celebrities penning the Bridgewater Treatises and exploring Robert Chambers, finally to arrive at Darwin.  Although natural theology has had many historians within the narrow bounds of periodization, Peterfreund joins the select company of Alister McGrath, whose 2009 Hulsean Lectures at Cambridge were published as Darwinism and the Divine in 2011, as one of the few scholars to give multi-century histories of British natural theology.

Peterfreund narrates natural theology’s story as one of ‘turning points’ (vii), moments when ‘the terms under which the argument from design was pursued changed significantly’ (vii).  While design rhetoric was static, he argues that its evidences changed: Bacon drew on ‘the design of the organism or creature’ (xi), Boyle on the ‘design of the mechanism’ (xii), Newton on the ‘design of matter’ itself thereby introducing ‘the idea of the system’ (xii), Paley on the ‘design of the universal mechanistic system’ thus attempting to harmonize mechanism and system (xii), and finally the authors of the Bridgewater Treatises plus Robert Chambers on the ‘design of the intrinsic system’ (xii).  While this point about shifting evidence is commonly accepted among scholars of natural theology, Peterfreund is the first to demonstrate it convincingly by traversing period boundaries, going beyond the confines of journal articles focused on the ascent and then occlusion of one variety of natural theology in one moment or period.

Peterfreund’s approach departs from most recent approaches to natural theology.  He proceeds using the methodologies and assumptions of a literary scholar, rather than of a pure historian of science.  The book is an intellectual history of natural theology evidenced through close readings (more of content than form) of the writings of the pre-Darwin scientific pantheon in Britain.  Thus Peterfreund provides a complement to the recent book and publishing history approach to natural theology adopted by Jonathan Topham within the history of science.

Although historical in scope, the book is not particularly historicist in methodology: it uses historical context to illuminate natural theological texts, but it is not interested in larger historical phenomena.  A summary of each chapter will demonstrate this point.  The introduction, summarizing natural theology pre-Bacon, traces the refractions of older natural theologies, particularly Raymond of Sabunde’s, in Bacon’s early work and concludes that his ideas were not entirely new.  The first chapter explores how Bacon took the Biblical Adam’s prelapsarian knowledge of the forms God created as the model for the kind of knowledge which Bacon’s scientific program would achieve.  Next, Boyle self-consciously moved beyond Bacon by collapsing natural theology and religion and by seeking to recover the design of the creature in order to access God’s character.  Peterfreund makes this point by carefully contrasting Bacon’s and Boyle’s rhetorical uses of the eye as an object of design.  Close readings of Boyle’s successors, like Ray, Derham, and Bentley, substantiate this claim for a shift in the aims of natural theology.  In the third chapter, Peterfreund argues that Newton sought to present himself as a ‘modern Moses’ with ‘divine interpretive authority’ (69) to read the Hexameral account of creation, especially concerning the origin and qualities of light and color, in a certain way.  Moving from scientific heavyweights to a synthesizer in chapter four, Peterfreund argues that Paley had ‘very little connection’ with the ‘continuity of natural theology in England’ (105), a claim he supports through looking at Paley’s word choice and at his goal of harmonizing natural theology and orthodoxy.  Paley’s emphasis on ‘adaptation’ then introduces the final chapter and Darwin.  In the decades before Darwin, Peterfreund identifies a transition to a conception of ramifying design in the natural theology of the Bridgewater Treatises and in the evolutionary ideas of Robert Chambers in Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation.  Finally, he concludes with reading Darwin’s ‘tree of life’ as a vast system of ramifying design - as the tangled bank of irreducible complexity to which today’s proponents of Intelligent Design appeal.

Although the book is sometimes overly detailed for a broad history of natural theology, I have only two major reservations about it: one to do with definitions and another to do with teleological historiography.  Peterfreund’s definition of natural theology as a ‘metascientific discursive practice’ with the goal of ‘the discernment of design(s) attributable to God in the natural world’ (vii) is unsatisfactorily vague.  Natural theology is more than a ‘metascientific discursive practice’, or what Jonathan Topham calls the ‘discourse of design’ invoked by a huge historical range of natural philosophers and scientists, for it is also a theology and a religious practice.  Natural theology is also more than an argument to design for it also involves an argument from design.  Yet the inadequacy of Peterfreund’s definition does not necessarily indicate inadequacy in his argument.  Instead, it indicates the difficulty of designating, without relying on anachronistic concepts, what one is studying as it emerges and then changes over three centuries.

My second reservation has to do with Darwin.  Why use Darwin as the crowning conclusion of this history at all?  Ending the story with Darwin suggests a number of things to which I take exception.  First, it suggests that natural theology and design ended with Darwin.  Many historians of science, particularly Ralph O’Connor and Bernard Lightman, have shown that this is untrue and that natural theology continued to be strong throughout the nineteenth century and beyond.  Second, it suggests that natural theology is only interesting as a background to evolutionary ideas.  In writing this review, I depended on the same rhetorical ploy Peterfreund does: Darwin is the hook to get people reading.  For Peterfreund, Darwin and the continuing Intelligent Design movement serve as the justification for 250 pages of close readings of texts that are perfectly worth reading for themselves.

Despite these reservations, the book is a useful contribution to studies of science and religion which has relevance to the area of literature and science.  Its strength is in its provision of a history of British natural theology over a span of 250 years.  Identifying the historical ‘turning points’ when natural theology’s evidentiary changed, Peterfreund demonstrates that natural theology and design were not reified but flexible and responsive to contemporary scientific, religious, and political concerns.  The book is an example of the metahistorical studies which are extremely helpful when trying to understand a body of thought or a discursive practice, but which are rarely attempted today because of the vast cultural knowledge they require.

Courtney Salvey, University of Kent